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Health lobby v Bernard Keane: alcohol industry is the problem, not the solution

Curtin University professor of health policy Mike Daube responds to Crikey politics editor Bernard Keane’s defence of the alcohol industry’s DrinkWise campaign.

Bernard Keane’s political commentaries are generally entertaining and well-informed, but I wish I could understand his obsession with criticising people who work in public health and the personal abuse that goes with it. That of course is his prerogative as a journalist, although it would be good to see his regular gripes about people who actually want to reduce the harms matched by the same level of cynicism about industries that knowingly expose children and young people to massive promotion of products that will harm their health.

His defence of the alcohol industry’s DrinkWise organisation quotes an unnamed “senior public health figure” who for reasons that are not explained speaks only “on condition of anonymity”. It is hard to know how seriously one can take a “senior public health figures” without knowing who they are, what experience and associations they might have, what rationale there might be for their comments, and why they want to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

The unnamed source’s arguments are also flawed.

I am not aware of anyone in public health arguing against good public education about alcohol from health authorities. Many of us do, however, criticise education activities we regard as phoney emanating from industry organisations such as DrinkWise — and very specifically the latest tacky campaign, which promotes “proper” drinking, implies that anything short of being blind drunk is acceptable, and throws in expletives for good measure.

The comparison between working with the alcohol industry now and with the sex industry in the early days of HIV/AIDS is also misplaced. We worked with the sex industry and others to ensure the safety of sex workers and their clients — but unlike alcohol or tobacco, the sex industry was co-operative, accepted the advice of health authorities, and changed its behaviour dramatically on the basis of our advice. Would that alcohol companies were as responsible or health-conscious as many in the sex industry! There are, of course, also serious penalties for anyone involved in knowingly engaging in behaviour that might transmit HIV/AIDS (indeed, while I was director general of health for Western Australia, I had to authorise detention of individuals on those grounds — not something any of us suggest for aggressive alcohol advertisers or misguided journalists!).

And if the shadowy anonymous figure does indeed know something about public health, he or she must also know how misleading it is to assert that, “the logic of demonising alcohol as like tobacco, though, is obvious to the public health industry: work at it long enough and you might be able to restrict and then start banning alcohol altogether”. Many of us have noted over and again that while the public health aim is indeed to see the end of smoking, the aims with alcohol are to reduce and minimise harmful drinking and to protect children. I am not aware of any significant public health figure who has promoted “banning alcohol altogether”. This kind of suggestion is mischievous nonsense that casts serious doubts on the credibility of the mysterious “senior public health figure”.

Keane quotes from a talk I gave in 1996, when I was working for the WA premier as chair of the government’s Task Force on Drug Abuse, in which I spoke about co-operation with the alcohol industry. Indeed, I tried — just as some of our predecessors tried working with the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s. As I have frequently noted, some two decades ago I gave it my very best shot; met with some people who seemed thoroughly decent, and persuaded me that their intentions were good; encouraged talk of co-operation; and discussed a range of possible positive initiatives here and elsewhere. Sadly, it all came to naught. There was much fine talk about advertising curbs, protecting children and vulnerable groups, focusing only on lower-alcohol products, decent warning labels, supporting (and not opposing) government education programs, and so much more — but absolutely nothing came of it. I tried and tried hard — but concluded that I had been taken for a ride. The last straw for me was when one of the industry leaders who had seemed most decent came into my office with a carton of “Duff” beer, festooned with characters from The Simpsons (one of my 10 year-old son’s favourite programs), solemnly assuring me that this would have no appeal to children.

I think I was right to try — but also to learn from that experience, and the industry’s ever more irresponsible behaviour here and elsewhere in the intervening years. Many have taken a similar route and come to a similar conclusion. That is why the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, says: “In the view of WHO, the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.”

Crikey readers can choose whether to accept the views of Keane and his mysterious unnamed source or a range of experts who do not hide behind anonymity — and the World Health Organization.

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  • 1
    S Grey
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your article, Professor Daube, it is of considerable interest.

    To Crikey’s sub-editor: at the risk of being accused of ‘[non-]substantive abuse’, I believe Professor Daube would be engaged by Curtin University and not Curtain University.

  • 2
    drmick
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I am with the professor on this one.
    There is no thought of how to claim some of the cost of looking after substance abuse victims in this country;in the way the tobacco industry was “demonised” to ensure they paid their fair share for smoking related illnesses in the USA.Keane is parroting the aboott/murdoch line like he is getting paid for it.

    Abbot made labor pay back their alcopop impost and destroyed the “controlled gambling” push with the help of the alcohol and gaming industry, purely because it would impact on alcohol sales.
    My local RSL has 10 poker machines in the outside smoking area; they pull in 8 times more money per week, than the other 50 machines inside the club. There are a lot of clubs just like this in NSW. More than enough money to pay the parrots in the press gallery.

  • 3
    Phen
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Defund all of these anti-alcohol organisations sand their nanny state nonsense.

  • 4
    Paul Collins
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I think the line about Duff Beer is a great example of the overzealousness of Mike Daube and the regulators as a whole. The Simpsons might be watched by kids, but it’s target audience would be those who are legally allowed to enjoy alcohol.

    Duff Beer is drunk on the Simpsons, should we just ban the whole show because kids might watch it, or should we just leave the responsibility with parents to not let their kids watch the show if they have a problem with Beer drinking?

    Australia has stricter rules than most developed countries already and rates of alcohol drinking are going down anyway. If you don’t like alcohol Mike, don’t drink it, but stop trying to ruin the fun for the rest of us responsible drinkers with taxes and regulation.

  • 5
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Emergency room statistics suggest otherwise Paul.

  • 6
    Phen
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Emergency room statistics” are a much poorer measure than actual sales volumes of the manufacturers/importers.

  • 7
    drmick
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Come and work where I work. 148 people permanently damaged as a result of substance abuse just waiting to die. The youngest is in their 20`s.
    Yeah. of course its a government plot.
    Yeah of course the prof cant see the humour.
    Yeah dont restrict my rights nanny state. I want to end up in a vegetative state. It is my right.
    Yeah any excuse the overpaid cold blooded murdering marketers can manufacure to ensure a bumper crop of new brain damaged individuals to replace the ones that die. Just doing your bit for Australia like the lumberjacks.

  • 8
    Rosemary Stanton
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth looking at the likely motivations for specific actions. Professor Daube and others of us who work in public health want to reduce the harms from excess alcohol. These include not only the harm to individuals but also the harm to the health budget.

    Just as you can set up questionnaires (or audits) to get the outcome you desire, so groups like Drinkwise can set up campaigns to get the outcomes desired by their industry. How likely is it that they would want to reduce sales of alcohol?

  • 9
    rhwombat
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Phen:
    “Emergency room statistics” are a much poorer measure than actual sales volumes of the manufacturers/importers.

    WTF?

    Poorer measure of what - profit and propaganda?

    Having worked in public hospitals EDs in Newcastle, I can vouch for the effects of imposing the lockouts etc., so bitterly opposed by the AHA, the alcohol lobby, their shills, addicts & fellow travellers (including Bernard Keene).
    http://www.theherald.com.au/story/2123507/newcastle-early-pub-closings-stop-4000-assaults/?cs=2452
    Kypros Kypri’s study backs up Mike Daube, and none of the hysterical denialism of Keane et al. is going to stop those of us who care about others from pointing out the (literally) bloody hypocrisy of telling the truth to greed.

  • 10
    rhwombat
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    sorry - hypocrisy of publicly denigrating the the telling of truth to greed.

  • 11
    Northy
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this Professor Daube, and thanks for all the work you do on this important issue. I don’t enjoy Bernard Keane’s regular attacks on public health advocates. The way he plays the man is much more News Corp than Crikey. The alcohol industry is more than capable of standing up for itself. It has pools of money and powerful backers. The political influence of the AHA is undeniable. Mike Daube is one of the few voices in Australia that counteracts these vested interests and puts forward evidenced-based proposals, rather than profit-based excuses. We need voices like this.

    I’m a relatively young person who still likes to go out on the town for a drink, but over the last decade or so I’ve seen Sydney’s nightlife deteriorate in a big way. Bernard should have taken a stroll down George or Oxford Street at 3am on Sunday morning (well, prior to the new alcohol laws): drunk idiots everywhere, fuelled by the intense density of late-opening pubs n’ clubs. That’s why I believe change was badly needed. The power of the alcohol industry kept sensible restrictions off the table for far too long.

  • 12
    Kez
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Duff Beer is drunk on the Simpsons, should we just ban the whole show because kids might watch it…”

    Paul Collins misses the point Mike Daube made about Duff beer.Selling beer festooned with cartoon characters will attract children — I’d be willing to bet the brand would stick in their consciousness until they got to legal alcohol-buying age, too.

  • 13
    stuart richardson
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Well said sir. In my view the bottom line is the number of persons negatively affected by the substance in question; don’t forget to include domestic violence, violence in public, ‘accidents’ and injuries directly related to drunken stunts. Tally up the figures and then sit down and have a think about the current response to the problem.

  • 14
    drmick
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    A big issue was lowering the legal age for drinking in the 70`s from 21 years to 18 years. For the next 15 years breweries changed hands for ridiculous sums of money; not for what they were worth, but for the new potential of the youth market.
    When that settled, compliant governments answered the call of the big dollar to put poker machines and TAB`s into pubs to make mini casinos. And now you have the 24 hour binge drinking destructive death and destruction and rat-baggery that comes with uncontrolled provision of alcohol.
    If we go the way of the industry and its supporters, where will it end? If we can’t control ourselves it is obvious the clubs, pubs, alcohol industry, Murdoch, Keane and the press gallery and the gambling industry will.
    Its not about a “nanny state” its about a vegetative state.
    Maybe its all part of Abbots plan to reverse the life expectancy rate to make the pension burden easier to manage. Think about all the social and economic costs of looking after a generation of severely brain damaged 30 year olds, in a high care secure environment for the next 40-50 years and see how that wrecks the budget.

  • 15
    Michael Jones
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    There is no path to reform if a hard line isn’t drawn against industries who act in bad faith.

    We can’t tolerate this absurd idea that we always have to make room for ‘the stakeholders’, even when the stake they have is profiting from the problem, and their prior behaviour is to sabotage the process.

    In a case like this, the industry obviously needs to be excluded from the process of reform, to minimize the damage they can do to it. And they can certainly do more damage if they’re let in, sitting on the committees, given credibility by the process, ect, ect.

    If an industry acts in good faith to aid in it’s reform, then that should be encouraged. And if they don’t, then that must have consequences as well, both to set an example, and minimize their negative impact.

  • 16
    AR
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Drmick - thanks for that - I did not know that 21 was the minimum age to drink in WA & SA until the 70s though I do recall that it was 21 in Qld in the 60s.
    In the US most States raised it from 18 to 21 because of Fed pressure on road funding & other fiscal arm twisting. Not out of their general Puritanism, heaven forfend though vast areas are dry by local legislation.
    NZ still had a parliamentary representation by Temperance MPs, if not Prohibitionists until the 80s I think.

  • 17
    drmick
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    The boys that went to Vietnam were held up at the time as “well if hey are old enough to go to war and fight and die for their country, they are old enough for a beer”. And so began the heroic idolisation of what was a pleasant pastime for some, but a full time destructive obsession for others. Governments responded by raising taxes and revenue. The workers at the breweries went on strike every Christmas for a wage rise and disaffected “hippies” took up the weed. In retrospect, given the amount of drugs consumed since then, it might have been cheaper to legalise and control them. Dont get me wrong; I drink , my sons drink and I am sure their ons will too. Its just that everyone these days are well aware of their rights and not so good with their responsibilities. I just hate to see the preventable waste of life I work with every day.
    No such thing as wasted education.

  • 18
    AR
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    DrM - they were also the only men under 21 able to vote in the 60s, on the same reasoning that you quote re booze.

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